Movie Reviews

Breakfast at Tiffany’s: Digging into the Soul of a Classic

The 1961 classic is a profound tale about friendship and love

”There was once a very lovely, very fightened girl. She lived alone except for a nameless cat.” With these typed words, one of the protagonists of this movie described her new love interest, as if looking for inspiration for his new book. Behind these words, however, lurked the essence of ”Breakfast at Tiffany’s” — a movie that, over the years, not only has become a classic and a cultural icon of its time, but perhaps –and more importantly — a work that has transcended the bounds of cinema.

Original 1961 theatrical release poster

Despite the fact that the movie is widely  deemed a classic of American cinema and a prominent jewel in the work of  director Blake Edwards (this is arguably his most culturally  significant work) it may be after some viewings that the true artistic rewards of the movie truly emerges. First, you may pick up on the style; then, you may grasp the substance of the story.

The ”lovely, frightened girl” is played by none other than Audrey Hepburn, who made a glamourous turn with Holly Golightly. A character that perfectly encapsulated the spirit of a young, damaged, runaway small-town girl locked up in the confines of a freewheeling, anything-goes, potentially self-destructive persona. Despite the complexity of her character, the movie has become a cultural icon of sorts primarily propelled by this character.  Her stylish appearance  — her black dress, her hairstyle, her long cigarette holder and her penchant for jewelry — not  only became the iconic image of the film; it also turned the world of  fashion to its head.

The story revolves around Paul Varjak (a writer ) — played by George Peppard in a subdued yet not to be overlooked performance — who meets, right after he moves into his new Upper West Side apartment, neighbor (Holly Golithly), an apparently free-spirited and self-indulgent woman who hobnobs with Manhattan’s swankiest of swanky high society. She plays an exquisitely fleeting young woman whose superficial lifestyle may seem like it’s constructed in such a delicate manner that it may crack momentarily and expose the turmoil inside. Paul and Holly start a friendship until they realize that they may have more in common than they probably thought at first.

Not enough has been said about the  fact that Holly’s ways of making ends meet is never clearly mentioned  or explained. The world’s oldest profession was not something the US  —  or the world by extension — was comfortable in portraying, let alone  in such a glamourous manner. Furthermore, if the movie had delved more deeply into that aspect of the character, ironically, it probably would have never  acquired, despite some anachronisms, the iconic resonance it has maintained to this day.  

Holly Golightly is essentially a lost soul, a vulnerable girl who is looking for a home, who got involved with a man who may have been more like a father figure than a husband.”

The  movie’s dramatic turning point can be situated at one specific point, when we  meet a mysterious man who turns out to be Mr. Doc Golightly, who is staking out Holly’s apartment.  Paul  prompts an encounter with him and at one point during their conversation, Doc shows him a family picture of him with his children.  Paul notices that Holly is in the picture and assumes that she is one of  his offspring. Doc then proceeds to tell him that she is actually his wife and that his children are from a previous marriage.  What transpires from this particular moment is Holly’s secret past which undoubtedly reveals a sad, lacking upbringing — a life that somehow offsets all the glitz & glam she has wanted to aspire to in order to escape from her herself and her true roots.  She is essentially a lost soul, a vulnerable girl who is looking for a home,  who got involved with a man who may have been more like a father figure than a husband.  

Peppard and Hepburn in the film

Paul is Holly’s counterpoint in the story.  Trivia on the film has it that George Peppard was uncomfortable with playing this character as it was written. As cast mate Patricia Neal  explained, Peppard didn’t like his character’s ”damaged” side as he  considered that this ran counter to his leading man status in the  industry.  The way Peppard played his  character is interesting because in all those times where we can sense  he is subtly ”rebelling” against his character, it only adds a layer of  resistance for that lost boy to come out and fight. 

When Paul  moves into his new apartment, it is soon made clear that he has a  relationship of sorts with his ”decorator” (this is how he introduces  her to Holly and to us). The true nature  of their relationship is never quite explained either, although it is hinted at — through a crucial scene in which she sneaks out of his apartment in the middle of one night, leaving cash for him on the table — that they may have a sponsor – client with benefits type of relationship. When asked by Holly what it is that he does for a living, he says he is a writer, although not very confidently (”I’m a writer, I guess”).

This serves to further underline one of the secrets of the movie — the character’s role in society and their subsequent place in the world. The characters are in a place they don’t want to be in and, in a way, they — and the movie by extension — leave unclear what they do because it is not so much what they do that matters, but, rather, how they go about defying the charade in their lives through simple mutual recognition.

These two characters have had to renounce who they truly are in order to live in an incresingly anonymous, undefined context (it is no accident tha Holly’s only companion — the cat — has no name.) They are drawn to one another because they see themselves in the other person. They are the ”two drifters,” as ”Moon River”,  the inmortal song sung and played by Holly, goes. 

Audrey Hepburn as Holly Goligthly singing ”Moon River”

Beyond the  glittering surfaces, the posh elements and all the superficial snippets  of NYC life that have made this movie a cultural icon, lies a very  sensitive and delicate character study about the loss of innocence, the sense of belonging and finding yourself in the reflection of someone  else who may also need some direction in life. Holly and Paul may come from  different backgrounds, but they see their pain, their internal ordeal in one another. When set against the backdrop of a city like New York — where  losing and finding oneself is a thematic stamp of the city — a  relationship like that of Paul and Holly acquires a heightened, larger-than-life dimension.

And that’s what classics — and universal stories that resonate with us time and time again — are meant to do.

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